I met Liu Xiaobo about a year before he launched Charter ’08, the manifesto for democracy in China which landed him in prison, and has now earned him the Nobel Peace Prize.

He struck me as an intense and earnest man, an intellectual concerned with the philosophical basis of Chinese society, as well as the contradiction between China’s economic ‘reform and opening up’ and its closed political system. Charter ’08, which he wrote and signed with 300 other Chinese intellectuals, was modelled on Charter ’77, the call for freedom by Vaclav Havel and other Czech dissidents which culminated in the Velvet Revolution and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Charter ’08 asks, “Where will China head in the 21st century? Continue a “modernization” under this kind of authoritarian rule? Or recognize universal values, assimilate into the mainstream civilization, and build a democratic political system? This is a major decision that cannot be avoided.”

The Chinese Communist Party gave its answer by arresting Liu before the document was published. On Christmas Day 2009 he was sentenced to 11 years in prison for “subversion of state power.” Chinese government spokespeople refuse even to mention his name. “China has no dissidents only criminals,” they say.

They lobbied hard against the award, regarding it as a western conspiracy to discredit China, as they did when Gao Xingjian, a dissident writer living in France, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2000.

It’s such a contrast with their desperation to win a Nobel Prize for science. There’s even a Chinese phrase for it: Nuobeier qingjie or Nobel Complex, as writer Julia Lovell has chronicled. Nine ethnic Chinese have won Nobel prizes for science but none has been a Chinese national, working under the Chinese system. Most have been at American research establishments or universities.

The Chinese government is pouring millions into scientific research, but the hierachical structure of education, emphasis on respecting authority, and inculcated fear of speaking out of turn mitigates against brilliant young scientists innovating and inventing. Technically, they’re very skilled, but ground-breaking research requires scientists to experiment without fear of failure or official censure.

It’s a lesson the Chinese government does not want to hear: you don’t get innovation without freedom of speech. The same political and cultural constriction which stops China winning scientific Nobels, have led to a Chinese dissident winning the peace prize.

Liu Xiaobo is nonetheless hopeful. In court on December 23rd 2009, before being led away to prison, he read out a statement.

“I’m full of optimistic expectations of freedom coming to China in the future, because no force can block the human desire for freedom,” he said.”China will eventually become a country of the rule of law in which human rights are supreme.”

And maybe then, a Chinese scientist will achieve the kind of originality and flair in research which leads to being honoured by the Nobel committee.

Postscript: Liu’s wife says she and her husband have two favourite authors – Dostoevsky and Kafka. And the verdict of the court when Liu was sentenced on December 25, 2009 had something of a Kafka-esque ring about it.

“This court believes that defendant Liu Xiaobo, with the intention of overthrowing the state power and socialist system of our country’s people’s democratic dictatorship, used the Internet’s features of rapid transmission of information, broad reach, great social influence, and high degree of public attention, as well as the method of writing and publishing articles on the Internet, to slander and incite others to overthrow our country’s state power and the socialist system. His actions constitute the crime of inciting subversion of state power. Furthermore, the crime was committed over a long period of time, and the subjective malice was immense. His articles were widely linked, reproduced, and viewed, spreading vile influence. He is an offender of a major crime and should be given severe punishment according to the law. The facts in the charge of inciting subversion of state power brought against Liu Xiaobo by the Beijing Municipal People’s Procuratorate Branch No. 1 are clear and the evidence is reliable and ample; the criminal charge is well-established.”